Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson


Robert Altman had times in his career when he was very hot, and times when no one would take his phone calls. Sometimes it was because of big flops like this one. He followed his triumph of Nashville with a string of no less than six disasters. I’m not saying they were all bad, they were not. But they didn’t sell tickets, and he was well aware that to keep working you had to make hit movies. So he made Popeye, a critical failure but a money-maker. This is the movie that immediately followed Nashville.

It is based on real events. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody really did have a Wild West show, and it was wildly popular all over the country and even in England and Europe. He was largely the creation of Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster), the author of trashy dime novels. Thus the largely fictional legend was born. He parlayed that into fame and fortune. Sitting Bull really did travel with the show for a few months. Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin) really was a featured act in the show, and she really was as incredible as a markswoman as is shown here. Sitting Bull named her Watanya Cicilla, which is Sioux for Little Sure Shot.

Despite the title, Altman is of course not going for totally true history. But that’s fine with me. As in so many of his movies, the plot is not the thing here. It is said to have been based on a play by Arthur Kopit (I saw a production of Kopit’s play Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad.) But very little of the play remains. It’s a big collection of characters, each with his or her own story line. Paul Newman plays Bill as the semi-charlatan, self-promoting, born showman that he apparently really was. In a funny scene Bill seems to be using a pistol to shoot targets thrown in the air. Sitting Bull picks it up and fires it at a tent, revealing that the loads are actually scattershot. Bill couldn’t hit shit!

The production design is fabulous, taking place in Bill’s encampment where the troupe practiced between seasons. It is mostly pretty funny. I’m not really sure why it didn’t do better financially. It just didn’t click, I guess. I think it looks much better today than it did when new.